Darlene Smith pushes her 9-month-old son Martez on a swing at Freedom Ridges park in Ridgeland on Saturday, September 18, 2021. Smith, a single mom, hasn't had child care since the state pushed her off the Child Care Payment Program, which offers assistance to low-income working parents, earlier this year. Credit: Anna Wolfe/Mississippi Today

As state leaders continue their perennial efforts to improve Mississippi’s workforce training and participation, federal pandemic dollars are providing a golden opportunity to address a major issue: child care for working parents, particularly single moms.

Will the state take advantage of this, and fix a program that has struggled, and often failed, to help many working parents? That remains to be seen. The state Department of Human Services, an agency plagued with mismanagement, malfeasance and scandal, appears to be dragging its feet on how it might spend $519 million in American Rescue Plan Act money earmarked for child care.

Mississippi’s Child Care Development Fund is a federal block-grant program that provides child care assistance to working parents earning up to 85% of the state’s median income, $45,937 for a family of three.

In the past, the program has received about $60 million in federal funds each year, and was serving an estimated 10% of low-income children. Congress bumped Mississippi’s allocation up to around $90 million for 2018 and 2019, and the state received nearly $145 million in 2020 due to pandemic relief, allowing the state to serve an estimate of up to 30% of income-eligible kids currently. But advocates argue there are still tens of thousands of low-income children disconnected from any publicly available early childhood program. The influx of hundreds of millions of additional federal dollars would appear to be a godsend for the program.

But it’s unclear exactly what DHS, an agency that reports to Gov. Tate Reeves, will do with much of the money. The agency has said it will provide stabilization grants to child care centers, but has provided few details, and offered no plans to help more working parents. Child care advocates have made recommendations — and other states are moving forward with planning and spending the funds — but DHS has only submitted a “placeholder” plan and says it’s still developing its strategy.

READ MORE: Mississippi procrastinates as other states plan for, spend billions in pandemic stimulus

DHS leaders have said that since the ARPA funds are technically one-time money that must be spent by 2026, they’re loathe to use it to expand the program to help more families and children.

“God forbid we serve another kid this year that we can’t serve four years from now when the money runs out,” said Carol Burnett, director of the Mississippi Low Income Child Care Initiative.

PODCAST: Federal funds provide opportunity to fix child care program for working parents

Meanwhile, the program, which has been described as a “minefield of bureaucracy,” is serving only a fraction of low-income families. Single working moms report a byzantine, nearly impossible to navigate web of red tape to get into the program, then a “redetermination” system that frequently kicks them out once they’ve gotten in. Parents have reported losing their workforce child care vouchers for providing copies of paperwork that were too dark, or required documentation they submitted expiring because DHS took too long in making eligibility determination.

Recently, the Mississippi Low Income Child Care Initiative reported between 3,600 and 4,100 parents lost their child care assistance amid the worst of the pandemic. Child care centers have also suffered from the pandemic, and from problems with the state’s voucher program for working parents.

One major issue with the child care program in Mississippi is that parents, typically single moms, are required to participate in the state’s child support system, using state contracted attorneys to go after their spouses in court. In essence, working moms have to navigate through one poorly run state bureaucracy in order to try to participate in another. This requirement provides mounds of red tape for parents, and often results in child care vouchers being denied or lost.

Other states are using their ARPA child care money to help eliminate red tape burdens and expand their workforce child care.

Advocates have made many recommendations to DHS for using the federal funds, including serving an additional 35,000 children, eliminating the child support requirements, and helping child care centers recruit, hire and retain qualified staff with higher wages and training. As for the money drying up, advocates say that more children could at least be served over several years, and money could also be used to help train single parents for better jobs.

Poverty-plagued Mississippi has struggled with its workforce. The state’s labor force participation rate, currently at 55.9%, is the lowest in the nation. Having an anemic and under-trained workforce holds the state back economically, and hampers economic development efforts to attract industry and jobs to the state. Helping single parents with child care so they can work would appear a no-brainer as officials focus on workforce development.

As Burnett recently said, “Parents with young children need child care in order to work. Because child care is expensive, many Mississippi parents need help affording the high cost … DHS should be working quickly to use these funds to serve more families.”

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Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.